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In my last posting “DC power supply output impedance characteristics”, I explained what the output impedance characteristics of a DC power supply were like for both its constant voltage (CV) and constant current (CC) modes of operation. I also shared an example of what power supply output impedance is useful for. But how does one go about measuring the output impedance of a DC power supply over frequency, if and when needed?


There are a number of different approaches that can be taken, but these days perhaps the most practical is to use a good network analyzer that will operate at low frequencies, ranging from 10 Hz up to 1 MHz, or greater, depending on your needs. Even when using a network analyzer as your starting point there are still quite a few different variations that can be taken.


Measuring the output impedance requires injecting a disturbance at the particular frequency the network analyzer is measuring at. This signal is furnished by the network analyzer but virtually always needs some amount of transformation to be useful. Measuring the output impedance of a voltage source favors driving a current signal disturbance into the output. Conversely, measuring the output impedance of a current source favors driving a voltage signal disturbance into the output. The two set up examples later on here use two different methods for injecting the disturbance.


The reference input “R” of the network analyzer is then used to measure the current while the second input “A” or “T” is used to measure the voltage on the output of the power supply being characterized. Thus the relative gain being measured by the network analyzer is the impedance, based on:

zout = vout/iout = (A or T)/R

The output voltage and current signals need to be compatible with the measurement inputs on the network analyzer. This means a voltage divider probe may be needed for the voltage measurement, depending on the voltage level, and a resistor or current probe will be needed to convert the current into an appropriate voltage signal. A key consideration here is appropriate scaling constants need to be factored in, based on the gain or attenuation of the voltage and current probes being used, so that the impedance reading is correct.




Figure 1: DC power supply output impedance measurement with the Agilent E5061B


One example set up using the Agilent E5061B network analyzer is shown in Figure 1, taken from page 15 of an Agilent E5061B application note on testing DC-DC converters, referenced below. Here the disturbance is injected in through an isolation transformer coupled across the power supply output through a DC blocking capacitor and a 1 ohm resistor. The 1 ohm resistor is doing double duty in that it is changing the voltage disturbance into a current disturbance and it is also providing a means for the “R” input to measure the current. The “T” input then directly measures the DC/DC converter’s (or power supply’s) output voltage.


A second, somewhat more elaborate, variation of this arrangement, based on using a 4395A network analyzer (now discontinued) has been posted by a colleague here on our Agilent Power Supply forum:“Output Impedance Measurement on Agilent Power Supplies”. In this set up the disturbance signal from the network analyzer is instead fed into the analog input of an Agilent N3306A electronic load. The N3306A in turn creates the current disturbance on the output of the DC power supply under test as well as provide any desired DC loading on the power supply’s output. The N3306A can be used to further boost the level of disturbance if needed. Finally, an N278xB active current probe and matching N2779A probe amplifier are used to easily measure the current signal.


Hopefully this will get you on your way if the need for making power supply output impedance ever arises!



Reference: “Evaluating DC-DC Converters and PDN with the E5061B LF-RF Network Analyzer” Application Note, publication number 5990-5902EN (click here to access)

What is a bipolar (four-quadrant) power supply?

To answer this question, I have to start with a basic definition of polarity conventions. Figure 1 shows a simple diagram of a power supply (a two-terminal device) with the standard polarity for voltage and current. A standard power supply typically is a source of power. To source power, current must flow out of the positive voltage terminal. Most power supplies source energy in this way by providing a positive output voltage and positive output current. This is known as a uni-polar power supply because it provides voltage with only one polarity. By convention, the “polarity” nomenclature typically refers to the polarity of the voltage (not the direction of current flow).

If current flows into the positive voltage terminal, the power supply is sinking current and is acting like an electronic load – it is absorbing and dissipating power instead of sourcing power. Most power supplies do not do this although many Agilent power supplies can sink some current to quickly pull down their output voltage when needed – this is known as a down-programmer capability – see this post for more info:


To fully define power supply output voltage and current conventions, a Cartesian coordinate system is used. The Cartesian coordinate system simply shows two parameters on perpendicular axes. See Figure 2.  By convention, the four quadrants of the coordinate system are defined as shown. Roman numerals are typically used to refer to the quadrants. For power supplies, voltage is normally shown on the vertical axis and current on the horizontal axis. This coordinate system is used to define the valid operating points for a given power supply. A graph of the boundary surrounding these valid operating points on the coordinate system is known as the power supply’s output characteristic.

As mentioned earlier, some power supplies are uni-polar (produce only a single polarity output voltage), but can source and sink current. These power supplies can operate in quadrants 1 and 2 and can therefore be called two-quadrant supplies. In quadrant 1, the power supply would be sourcing power with current flowing out of the more positive voltage terminal. In quadrant 2, the power supply would be consuming power (sinking current) with current flowing into the more positive voltage terminal.

Some power supplies can provide positive or negative voltages across their output terminals without having to switch the external wiring to the terminals. These supplies can typically operate in all four quadrants and are therefore known as four-quadrant power supplies. Another name for these is bipolar since they are able to produce either positive or negative voltage on their output terminals. In quadrants 1 and 3, a bipolar supply is sourcing power: current flows out of the more positive voltage terminal. In quadrants 2 and 4, a bipolar supply is consuming power: current flows into the more positive voltage terminal. See Figure 3.

Agilent’s N6784A is an example of a bipolar power supply. It can source or sink current and the output voltage across its output terminals can be set positive or negative. It is a 20 W Source/Measure Unit (SMU) with multiple output ranges. See Figure 4 for the output characteristic of the N6784A.

To summarize, a bipolar or four-quadrant power supply is a supply that can provide positive or negative output voltage, and can source or sink current. It can operate in any of the four quadrants of the voltage-current coordinate system.